The side project. By Kathleen Tolan. Directed by Adam Goldstein. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 10mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kevin Thomas
Kathleen Tolan's new play, premiering at the side project, is the story of divorcée Margaret (Holly Allen) and her estranged daughter Hanna (Julia Rose Duray), both music lovers who have turned to conversations with composers of the past to resolve their emotional turmoil while continents apart.
What To Listen For is really the combination of Disney’s “It’s A Small World” ride with an intellectual history of late 19th and early 20th century music. Mahler, Schoenberg, Toscanini, and Gould appear in person, as puppets, in shadowplays, and as metaphors. It’s less a visual feast and more a visual sushi conveyor; each new scene shifts from one device to the next, so that the tiny black box theater always has some new trick hidden in the set. And suddenly, a live accordion appears! And now Sigmund Freud in a puppet show!
The bubbling whimsy energizes subject matter that would otherwise be a hard sell. Even many classical music fans don’t enjoy the era What To Listen For focuses on. While lovingly rendered, the emotional connection both mother and daughter feel to these composers is not sympathetic. Both Allen and Duray make their characters charming and easy to listen to, but I would still avoid talking to them at parties—they possess that absolutely heartfelt, mildly unhinged fascination that’s a bit too far gone for the uninitiated to understand. Nevertheless, a great heaping spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, and that’s true here with all the baubles paraded before the audience. And I will say that every show I’ve seen at the side project has had particularly vivid soundscapes, so the musical elements move in accordance with the complex visuals.
Yet for all the loveliness, fundamentally What To Listen For plies the established intellectual history of others in place of its own ideas. There are many plays like this, and the dialogue is inevitably punctuated with “yes”, “why yes”, and “it seems true”, to confirm how lovely these thoughts were. The range of emotions onstage becomes constricted to hopeful or melancholic reflection, so it never manages to touch you in the way theater should. While it may expose some beautiful notions, this production can’t do much with them since it’s essentially a reaffirmation of ideas already known, if not known to you personally. Whimsy and highbrow subject matter can only take a play so far, and What To Listen For only goes as far as they allow. Mother and daughter experience a reawakening of love, perhaps, but only in the mind. It isn’t felt in the heart, by them or by us.